AN INTERVIEW WITH HARRY SKOLER:

THE JAZZ CLARINETIST and "A WORK OF HEART"

by Paula Edelstein (from JAZZREVIEW.COM)

One of the great strengths of jazz music in the past years or so has been the wealth of improvised music produced away from the big concert halls and clubs and unrecorded by the major labels. Some has surfaced and made it "bigtime," but most has remained of minor interest, despite the musicianship of those involved. But no one has remained more astute in his art than clarinetist Harry Skoler. His latest release on the independent Brownstone Recording label, A WORK OF HEART, is a fitting portrait of his talent and is rapidly gaining the attention of many jazz lovers around the world having reached #25 on the Gavin Jazz Chart. As many of you know, the clarinet was the favored reed instrument of early New Orleans bands as well as for players such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman, who were all clarinet-playing, big band leaders in the 1930s. Few musicians have used it as a leading instrument since, but along with Eddie Daniels, Ken Peplowski and Gary Foster, Harry Skoler has helped to rekindle interest in the jazz clarinet as a uniquely expressive contemporary voice.

Harry Skoler obtained his Master's degree in Jazz Studies from the New England Conservatory of Music. He also plays saxophone, flute and piano but has made his major impact as a clarinetist on his two releases for Brownstone Records entitled CONVERSATIONS IN THE LANGUAGE OF JAZZ and REFLECTIONS ON THE ART OF SWING: A TRIBUTE TO BENNY GOODMAN. He currently teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Harry is joined by fellow musicians Donn Trenner on piano, Garrison Fewell on guitar, Joe Lano on guitar, Rich Margolis on vibraphone, Roger Kimball and Brace Philips on bass and Tim Gilmore and John Abraham on drums. In an interview for The Jazz Review.com, we talked about his latest CD, A WORK OF HEART, and the jazz clarinetist.


JAZZREVIEW.COM: Hello Harry, thank you so much for the interview. We appreciate it tremendously.

HARRY SKOLER: Thank you for the opportunity and support. I cannot tell you how appreciative I am!

JAZZREVIEW.COM: A WORK OF HEART is a splendid collection of different musical tributes and genres that display your versatility as a composer and jazz clarinetist. Why did you approach the project from this standpoint as opposed to selecting songs that may have been associated with other jazz clarinetists?

HARRY SKOLER: Each artist has their "own story" to tell. The reason I recorded a tribute to Benny Goodman was because of the artist behind the clarinet, more so than the fact that Goodman played the clarinet. An instrument is not alive, but as an extension of the person, the instrumental "voice" can express a heart otherwise veiled. I have been influenced by many artists, playing many different instruments. At all times, I try to tell my own story. A WORK OF HEART was a "calling". I HAD to express certain feelings at the time of this recording, and the compositions chosen were ones that were the vehicles best allowing me to do so. It was the right thing at the right time. Indeed, it was an artistic "marriage" between the multi-talented Donn Trenner (pianist, producer, arranger) and myself that allowed A WORK OF HEART to beat. I am interested in first and foremost, expressing a message that comes from within. Second, if there is a tribute to an artist (such as 'Goodbye Mr. Evans' for the legendary pianist Bill Evans), the artist behind the instrument is primary, not whether they are a clarinetist or not. Also, the pieces selected, aside from the originals, were ones that I fell in love with over a long period of time, and were intimately woven with my life experiences. To be able to record them in a different way allowed me to come "full circle" in my "relationship" with the compositions and the performers that recorded them. These pieces gave so much to me during the many hours of listening to them, to be able to record them on this project was an experience that was beautiful.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: It has been duly noted that the legendary Benny Goodman and Buddy DeFranco really impacted your decision to play clarinet as your main instrument. Were they actually the deciding influences in choosing to play jazz clarinet instead of the saxophone or the flute?

HARRY SKOLER: Actually, the clarinet was an instrument that was chosen for me as a child. Although I remember as a kid watching someone playing it on television (maybe around 1962 or so) and thinking "That looks easy.. I could do that," I really had no love for the instrument until I heard Goodman's sound and expressive playing. I was later taken by Buddy DeFranco's playing during my years at Berklee studying under Joe Viola, the legendary teacher. I do play saxophone, flute, and piano, and I do consider them different "voices" I express different parts of myself with. But, the reason the clarinet is the closest to me? I don't know that I'll ever really know. In some way, I have an overwhelming feeling it was just meant to be. I did put it on the "back burner" at different times, but it always found its way home. After 30 years, I just accept it as "ME".

JAZZREVIEW.COM: "Coisa Feita" the Joao Bosco piece and "Don't Ever Go Away" by Antonio Carlos Jobim shows your love of Brazilian standards, both with great arrangements by Donn Trenner. You mentioned that a lot of the pieces helped get you through the years. Is this CD emotionally fulfilling in that sense?

HARRY SKOLER: Very much so. I already felt connected with the pieces long before the recording on this project. When I was involved in the writing/recording of A WORK OF HEART, it was difficult at times to gain perspective. But, after living with it for a while now, I'm able to enjoy it as a "listener," and I am happy with what was captured. If I didn't feel that way, it never would have been released. The fact that it reached #25 on Gavin's Jazz Chart (for national radio airplay...top 50) really was wonderfully satisfying, because it meant that it was reaching others. Being on a smaller label, I am proud of that, and my wish to do something positive for others is being realized. Having worked towards that goal for decades, I am genuinely thrilled to know it is finding its way to so many hearts.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: It's an excellent CD, Harry. Your original "Portrait of Daniel," brings to life the imagery of your son in a very lilting, light way. I imagined the song as a very, bright light in your heart and the creative process. Also "Estate" is sentimental and softly woven through the brushwork of Tim Gilmore and Rich Margolis' vibes. They are so beautifully played...both truly A WORK OF HEART. Please tell your readers the inspiration for these two songs.

HARRY SKOLER: My son Daniel, now ten, fills me with joy, pride, and amazement, not to mention more love that I can imagine. The tune was originally composed when he was an infant, from a photograph of him. Of course the "portrait" refers to his "being," not his image. I included a drawing in the booklet that he did when he was seven. He raised some butterflies from caterpillars. When he let them go, it was very difficult for him. He was very upset to "lose" his "friends" as they flew away. A few months later, I discovered a story he had written in school and illustrated. The picture of the butterflies flying away with the caption "I had to let them go because they wanted to be free" moved me. As for "Estate," Jon Hendricks' recorded version floored me...the lyrics are the most poetic I've ever heard, and his interpretation affected me immediately, and every listening since. The combination of "Estate's" seductive melody and Hendricks' interpretation inspired me to "sing" the lyrics while playing the melody. If I feel that the clarinet is a "singing" voice, then I seem to be able to connect emotionally, and play with more nuance and intimacy.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: That is a moving experience and your son, Daniel obviously realized the old adage "if you love something, set it free." Harry, as a musician that plays a reed instrument, what would you say are the most amenable aspects of playing jazz clarinet as opposed to another woodwind instrument?

HARRY SKOLER: Although I frequently joke that the clarinet isn't "user friendly," once the technical barriers are overcome, the instrument has different personalities that are so completely distinctive from each other in the three registers. It can sound very "vocal", and the contrast is huge...from shouting joy that is overpowering to subtleties that are poignant and haunting. I have heard equally moving expression from all woodwind instruments, although for some reason, I seem to be able to find my "way" through the voice of the clarinet the most.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: There are so many up-tempo, full throttle arrangements of Swing tunes that come to mind when you think of jazz clarinetists. Songs like Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp," and others that feature the King of Swing. Why do you feel the jazz clarinetist "lingered" in the wings after Goodman?

HARRY SKOLER: The artists in the years after the Big Band Era seemed to primarily express themselves through saxophone. I think the artists were interwoven with the times...perhaps the clarinet's sound just didn't seem to express what most people were "hearing" at the time. I'm not sure. There were some players that were on the scene of course (Tony Scott, Buddy DeFranco, and others). Perhaps the fact that in the Big Bands the clarinet was a solo voice, and less a sectional instrument, which meant there were less players focusing on the instrument on the scene...there was more work for saxophone. Also, the music of the times after the Big Bands were influenced by artists that had such a dominant influence, and their instrument happened to be saxophone. Other problems inherent in playing the clarinet in small groups are that the group has to be very sensitive dynamically, otherwise the clarinet can be drowned out in the lower register. In the Big Bands, the arrangement allowed the clarinet to be heard more completely. Without these arrangements, the lower register could be "lost" and being part of the clarinetist's "palette" of "colors," the musician could feel limited in the ability to have enough contrast in their playing. Jimmy Giuffre, (whom I studied with at the New England Conservatory of Music) was a groundbreaking player in his use of the lower register, and the interplay in his small groups that allowed all the nuances of the clarinet to be heard.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: I understand. Harry, as a jazz clarinetist, are you enjoying the resurgence of the Swing Era?

HARRY SKOLER: I would have to say I've always loved the music of the Swing Era, along with what was before and after. So, with or without the clarinet, I'm happy to see people embrace the timeless and intensely "alive" feeling of the Swing Era. In the concerts where I have performed tributes to Benny Goodman, the audiences have been full, so of course that makes me happy when I do a tribute concert. But, the most important reason I'm enjoying it is because the music continues to be played with new artists on the scene, telling their "own story," as well as keeping the appreciation alive for the great contributions of the artists that paved the way.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Your brilliant tributes to Bill Evans, "Your Story," and "Goodbye Mr. Evans," are sophisticated, elegant and classically styled. How did playing with a full orchestra differ from playing with the spontaneity of a small big band format on other selections?

HARRY SKOLER: It was an incredible experience. I'll never forget the albums I listened to with Wes Montgomery with strings. I've always been enamored with string albums by jazz artists. When I heard the vocalist/pianist Paul Broadnax's recording "Here's to Joe" (on Brownstone), I fell in love with it. Donn Trenner was the pianist and arranger on that timeless masterpiece, and after hearing the "live" performance and the CD, Donn was the only one that I hoped with all my heart would join me on this project. I am immensely happy that he did, and am grateful for his artistry, caring, producing, arranging, and friendship. He is a consummate artist in every respect.

As for the actual playing, some tracks were orchestrated after the spontaneity of the small group happened first. Much of the orchestration came directly from what Donn played spontaneously on piano. Other tunes were arranged first. Each one had its own unique experience, challenges and surprises to it. It was both enlightening and interesting to have let each work evolve, and then to have the recording as a whole work as a "story". Donn and I will be working on another project this year!

JAZZREVIEW.COM: This question has become a major request from readers that read our Jazzviews and it is about gear for musicians. Which clarinet, reed and mouthpiece do you use and why?

HARRY SKOLER: I play and endorse Buffet Clarinets (I play the R-13 Model), Vandoren V-12 Reeds, and Claude Lakey Mouthpieces. The combination of all three allows my "voice" to "be". Everybody needs to find what will allow them to intimately connect so they can express themselves freely... these allow me to embrace my sound.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Our publisher will be opening a music store after this one!! (smile) Any concerts in the year 2000?

HARRY SKOLER: There will be concerts (in different cities nationally) celebrating the release of A WORK OF HEART. These are in the planning stage and will be announced on my web site at http://www.harryskoler.com. I also reach thousands of young people each year performing throughout New England with the quartet "Adventures With Jazz" (with Roger Kimball on Bass, Tim Gilmore on Drums, and Mark Retallack on Keyboards).

JAZZREVIEW.COM: That's great and we'll keep listening and checking the site. Thank you so much for this interview and an extra special congratulations on A WORK OF HEART.